Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

A Gauteng manufacturer of combined road and rail vehicles is proposing a solution to the public transport problems experienced by poor people in rural and peri-urban areas.

In SA, the onset of large cities growing into each other, or conurbation, has led to poor communities spending long times on travel and disproportionate amounts of money on essential travel. The effect this has on the economy is underscored in a new World Bank report, which cites limited or expensive transport connectivity as a contributory factor to poverty and inequality.

The company, RailPro, has developed what it calls a bi-modal vehicle that transports people and goods on road and rail. It has named the vehicle RailBus. Its salient feature is a South African-invented drive system fitted to an ordinary road-going, diesel-powered lorry (typically eight tonnes), which powers retractable rail wheels when needed.

RailPro envisages the deployment of its RailBus on about 4,000km of SA’s 9,000km of largely unused branch lines to service communities that arose along the country’s railways. The vehicle would also travel on main lines, where necessary.

CEO Ed Magan told a presentation to the media on Thursday that the RailBus’s fuel consumption can be as low as half that of a similar road vehicle due to the low friction of steel wheels on steel rails.

Even greater savings could be achieved when the RailBus is preferred over conventional passenger trains. Magan said the RailBus was a "vastly cheaper" means of transport than rail, with maintenance costs a fraction of those required for a locomotive, while consuming "more than 30 times less" fuel per kilometre than a locomotive pulling passenger wagons.

Magan said the RailBus could mount and dismount railway lines almost anywhere, but typically at level crossings. Creating a halt for the RailBus can be done at negligible cost. "[It] means commuters can board the bus at a conventional bus terminus before mounting the rails and driving more directly to its destination."

RailPro said it would initially market its RailBus to local and provincial governments. Magan was unable to precisely quantify the number of potential passengers or the capacity of the market, referring instead to anecdotal evidence that large numbers of rural South Africans have little or no access to transport.

Transnet’s head of branch lines Jan-Louis Spoelstra said regulatory approval for the RailBus deployment was under way, pending the Rail Safety Regulator’s assessment, and a ruling was only months away.

A railway consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said using branch lines would contribute greatly to community development. "If the community relied on the railway tracks for passenger, and possibly freight transport of agricultural produce to market, they would most likely take ownership of the line and prevent it from being vandalised."